With strike on the table, Stop & Shop contract talks to resume this week

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A strike threat by 31,000 Stop & Shop union workers in New England — including Berkshire County — looms over contentious contract negotiations expected to resume this week.

All five bargaining units of the United Food & Commercial Workers currently embroiled in talks with the supermarket chain are unified in their willingness to walk off the job if progress isn't made at the bargaining table.

On Sunday, UFCW Local 1459, representing 1,300 Western Massachusetts members, was one of the three locals to issue a strike authorization to its union leaders. The other two locals involved had already agreed to strike, if necessary.

The votes don't mean the rank and file will immediately walk off their jobs at the supermarket company, which has two stores in Pittsfield and one in North Adams. Negotiations are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, according to Stop & Shop officials.

The UFCW says the talks could be a turning point in the labor dispute.

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"Our members have spoken and are unified in doing what's right for our stores, customers, and communities. The next round of negotiations will be critical in determining what direction we take," the UFCW said in a release.

A Stop & Shop spokeswoman didn't comment directly when asked by The Eagle on Monday about on the union threatening to strike.

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"We are proud of our relationship with associates and optimistic that we will be able to reach new agreements. We are continuing to negotiate in good faith," said company spokeswoman Stefanie Shuman.

However, Local 1459 spokesman Dean Ethier told The Eagle on Sunday that the two sides are "far apart" on pensions, benefits, wages, health and welfare. Stop & Shop employees in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island have been working under an expired contract since Feb. 23.

The five locals collectively were steadfast on Monday in their opposition to Stop & Shop's previous offer.

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"Stop & Shop would like us to accept a contract that severely cuts our health care and retirement benefits, but we will not accept one that devalues our members," the release from the UFCW stated. "Stop & Shop workers are trusted by customers all over New England with handling their food and providing great service, but the company is trying to put many of its workers in a position now where they have to choose between going to work sick or not being able to pay their bills. These kinds of cuts not only hurt our working families but put our communities at risk as well."

Stop & Shop, the only large unionized food retailer still operating in New England, noted that their workers are among the highest paid in the industry.

"We are working hard to reach strong new contracts that will continue to provide highly competitive wages, comprehensive health care coverage and, unlike any other area food retailers, a defined benefit pension," Shuman said. "Stop & Shop has also committed up to $2 billion to upgrade our stores over the next several years to better serve our customers and communities as we also lower prices and expand opportunities for our associates."

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com and 413-496-6233.


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